Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Very Steinbeck Day

January 10, 2012
Our vacation reading has been focused Steinbeck—we both have downloaded a collection of Steinbeck novels on our Kindles, and have read a lot of Steinbeck, including Cannery Row and  Tortilla Flat, both set in Monterey, as part of our vacation enhancement program.

Before leaving town this morning we drove by the Steinbeck family cottage in Monterey, where John vacationed when he was growing up, and where he and his first wife Carol lived after they were married in 1930.  (It is now a private home, with no sign of its literary history, and no visible house number, probably to discourage fans like us from poking around .)  Steinbeck’s father gave him a $25 a month allowance and the young couple struggled to make ends meet.   They had to sell their two pet mallards to buy writing paper for John’s manuscript of To a God Unknown.  This cottage is also the infamous site where his dog Toby chewed up his nearly finished manuscript for Of Mice and Men.

Artichoke field
Our next destination was Salinas, where Steinbeck grew up, but before we got there, we made an unexpected detour into Castroville, after passing miles and miles of beautiful artichoke fields, then reading the town sign declaring Castroville to be “Artichoke Center of the World.”  Castroville supplies 75% of the artichokes we eat, and it celebrates its artichoke abundance every year with an artichoke festival.  Marilyn Monroe was their first Artichoke Queen in 1947.

The town also has the world’s largest artichoke—a 20 foot whopper in front of the Giant Artichoke Restaurant.

Salinas is the town where John Steinbeck was born and lived until he was 17 and went off to college.  His house is owned by a Guild of civic-minded local women who raised over $80,000 in 49 days to buy and renovate the house back in the 1970s.  They now operate a luncheon restaurant and gift shop in the house, with Guild member volunteers helping their professional chef in the kitchen, waiting on tables, working in the gift shop, and acting as docents.  Profits are used for maintenance of the house, with any extra money going to local charities and scholarships.

We had lunch there and learned many stories between bites.  John was born in the front parlor in 1902.  He wrote his first short stories and the novels The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat in the front room upstairs.  He lost the manuscript to The Red Pony, and rewrote the book.  (What bad luck—this is now two books we have learned that he had to rewrite.)  When his parents moved out of this house many years later, the lost Red Pony manuscript was discovered wedged behind a desk.  Our docent claimed that when that manuscript was compared with the rewrite there were only seven words different!

Lunch at The Steinbeck House was a most unique dining experience.  And, we hasten to add that the food was really good—the goal of the Guild is to showcase produce grown in the Salinas Valley, and they do it very well.

Speaking of Salinas Valley produce, shortly after we left Salinas, we passed thorough Gilroy, “Garlic Capital of the World.”  We smelled it before we saw the sign—they don’t grow the most garlic in Gilroy, but garlic is heavy in the air, thanks to Gilroy Foods, the largest garlic processing plant in the world.  At Gilroy’s annual garlic festival you can try garlic ice cream.  Unfortunately, Gilroy does not have the world’s largest garlic statue—we pulled out our I-Pad to search for one, but came up empty.  They are missing a real tourist draw there.

We weren’t done yet—our final attraction of the day, and of our trip, was the Winchester Mystery House.  It was a particularly fitting way to end our travels, as the house combines the over the top elegance that we enjoy in homes like the Hearst Castle with the wackiness of a bizarre larger than life roadside attraction.

The roughly 160 room house was built by Sarah Winchester, widow of Winchester Rifle heir William Wirt Winchester, but it was designed by spirits, or so they say. 

A little background:  Sarah married Winchester in 1862, their infant daughter died in 1866, and Mrs. Winchester fell into an unending deep depression, and then when her husband died of tuberculosis fifteen years later she went off the deep end.

How else could you explain what happened next?  She was living in New Haven Connecticut, and went to a spiritualist in Boston for some guidance.  The spiritualist told her that the Winchester family was haunted by the spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles, which explained the deaths of her child and husband.  The way Sarah could appease the spirits and buy herself eternal life was to move west and build a big house for the spirits.  As long as she continued construction, she would be safe.

So that is what Sarah did—she moved to California, built a massive house, and kept building and rebuilding and remodeling it day and night for 38 years.  She was only 4’ 10” tall, which explains why the ceilings are claustrophobically low for a house of this size.  The rest of the design details can only be explained this way--every evening she would summon the spirits at midnight, and the next morning she would give her construction supervisor new instructions for what to add or rip away. 

Neither she nor the spirits had any architectural training, which explains why there are doors and stairs that lead to nowhere, a chimney that stops just inches short of the roof, windows that open into walls, and mazelike hallways throughout.  Maybe she was nuts, or maybe she was just bored and found perpetual home remodeling to be an amusing way to spend what in today’s dollars would be $22,000 a day—her income from her Winchester stock. 

Damage from the earthquake of 1906 trapped a terrified Mrs. Winchester in her room and shook up some other part of the house.  She took that as a warning from the spirits that she had spent too much money on the front of the house (which was beautifully finished with many Tiffany glass windows, intricately patterned parquet floors, massive chandeliers, and lots of other ostentatious ornamentation).  So, she closed off the entire front portion of the house—thirty lavishly furnished rooms—and no one ever entered them again until she died sixteen years later. 

Actually, no one but construction workers, servants, and a favorite niece entered the house at all. Mrs. Winchester was a recluse who did not entertain, even though she had a grand ballroom and a dining room table large enough to seat at least twenty people.  Teddy Roosevelt once tried to visit, but it was after the earthquake, so when he approached the impressive front doors (beveled and stained glass made by Tiffany in France for a sum that could buy three normal houses), a servant told him he had to go around to the service door.  He refused and left.  No one ever walked through those Tiffany doors except the carpenters and Mrs. Winchester—the earthquake happened shortly after they were installed.

Now a private corporation owns the place and gives regular tours and ghost tours, and of course there are people who claim to have communed with the spirits there.  We didn’t see evidence of any otherworldly phenomena (no surprise), but Dick was very disturbed by the evidence of lack of maintenance on the place—quite a contrast with the meticulously maintained Hearst Mansion (which, by the way, was also unfinished after 28 years of constant building and renovation).

We don’t know how we could have squeezed any more exciting adventures into a couple weeks in California.  We are officially ready to go home and rest up from our vacation!

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